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Sony’s Next VR Headset May Be the One That Brings VR to the Masses

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Virtual reality is the wave of the future. It’s pointless to argue with that fact. Technology will become so streamlined and integrated that it will become as common as smartphones at some point. VR, on the other hand, is currently struggling to gain traction in the mainstream. It has gotten better over the last decade or so since it became widely available commercially, but it has never managed to reach a large audience. A number of major corporations have also thrown their support behind these headsets. Even though Facebook, Valve, and Google are some of the world’s biggest tech companies, their headsets aren’t catching on.

Why, then, would Sony’s upcoming virtual reality headset succeed where others have failed? What makes Sony VR’s last chance to catch the public’s eye, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that the original PlayStation VR was comparatively underpowered at the time. It has a few distinct advantages, but I believe it will only be successful if the PS VR 2 includes a few key features.

PlayStation’s unique position

PSVR 2 Controllers.

PlayStation is the only home console manufacturer investing in virtual reality. Microsoft toyed with the idea of augmented reality (AR) via HoloLens on Xbox One but never followed through, and Nintendo tried way too early with the Virtual Boy and hasn’t looked back since. The PS VR headset for the PlayStation 4 was the only console-compatible VR headset on the market, demonstrating how much people valued convenience over specs.

The PS VR isn’t a particularly powerful headset. The PlayStation VR has a 1920 x 1080 resolution, uses the PlayStation camera to track movement, and can be controlled with either the regular DualShock 4 controller or the old PS3 Move controllers. The highest-end headset at the time, released earlier that year, had a resolution of 2160 x 1200, used base station cameras for room-scale, and supported the Vive controllers, among other features.

Those other headsets, on the other hand, had flaws as well. Not only did every other VR headset require a PC connection, but they also came with hefty price tags. PSVR was $200 to $300 less expensive at launch than all other, more powerful headsets on the market.

Valve, which owns Steam and (occasionally) develops games, is the closest competitor to Sony in this regard. The main distinction is that Steam games are played on personal computers (PCs), which can differ greatly in power from one system to the next. Even today, there’s a widespread belief that building a powerful PC necessitates being a technological wizard willing to invest a lot of time and money. If, on the other hand, you already own a PlayStation, you’ll be VR ready once you get the headset. Simple. (A wrinkle that Sony can’t really control is the current era of chip shortages making consoles difficult to come by.)

Despite all of its problems, the PS5 remains the best-selling PlayStation system of all time. Sales will eventually level out as stock catches up, but for the time being, sales are looking very promising, which is crucial for the PS VR 2. The original PS VR only succeeded because of the PS4’s massive success, and if the PS5 sells even better, Sony will be in a great position to take VR to the next level.

What PS VR 2 needs to be

A woman reaching out while wearing a VR headset.
Mark Nazh/Shutterstock

It won’t be enough to simply release a more powerful version of the PS VR and call it a day. Even with the PS5’s success and ease of use, most people are still skeptical of virtual reality. People just want to bring VR into their homes before it can truly demonstrate its capabilities and expand beyond the niche audience it currently has. Again, if Sony does a few key things correctly, it will be able to capitalize on a market that no other company can.

First and foremost, there is the cost. Sony did a good job with the original PS VR pricing, though it was a little on the high side. It was basically the cost of a second console, which is a lot of money for something that most people consider a gimmick. Even more than specs or software, most consumers will consider price before purchasing an additional piece of technology.

The PS5 is pricey, but not excessively so. The market has clearly hit a sweet spot, as stock sells out within hours every time it becomes available. This time, the headset cannot be as expensive as the console. If Sony wants to see long-term success, it may have to sell the PS VR 2 at a loss. The cheaper digital edition of the PS5 costs $400 right now, so a VR headset should cost at least $50 less. If Sony can keep it under $300, it will likely convert a lot more people who were previously undecided.

Use Sony’s IP

Ratchet and Clank on the PS5 home screen.

The biggest oversight of PS VR the first time around was the absence of any of PlayStation’s most popular first-party titles. Yes, some first-party studios created exclusive games for it, and some of them were excellent, but the vast majority of people are far more familiar with the names Ratchet and Clank, Nathan Drake, Kratos, and even Sackboy than they are with Guerilla Games, London Studios, or Team Asobi. Astro could return to bolster VR now that he’s had a chance to shine outside of VR, and as a free experience on every PS5, but Sony needs some iconic characters to sell this hardware.

I don’t just mean some sort of VR “experience,” like a Horizon-style game where you play as Aloy riding a robot dinosaur down a fancy shooting gallery in five on-rails levels. Make some real, full-game experiences for players to sink their teeth into, like Valve’s Half-Life: Alyx. Smaller experiences are enjoyable as well, but most people will not bother if there is nothing substantial to play.

People buy PlayStations for the high-quality games we come to expect from its studios. If Sony doesn’t provide that same level of the game for PS VR 2, like it didn’t for PS VR, people aren’t going to buy-in.

Give it support

Playing poker in VR.

Apart from providing PS VR 2 with high-end first-party games, Sony must continue to support the system, just as it does with the PS5. In this regard, the PS VR’s early days looked promising, with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard being fully playable in VR on PS4 and nowhere else. There wasn’t much else coming to the system after that except ports and indie games. This created a cycle in which developers were hesitant to invest resources in creating a VR game for such a small install base, preventing sales from increasing as a result of a lack of high-quality games. This loop didn’t completely kill PS VR, but it did severely limit its potential.

Outside of its own studios, Sony has excellent relationships with a slew of major publishers and developers. It needs to secure some exclusive VR experiences through partnerships. Try getting Half-Life: Alyx on there! Check to see if Resident Evil Village will be ported by Capcom. Even getting Resident Evil 4 VR, which has been rumored, could help move some units. Sony will have to bear a significant upfront cost, but we already know that VR can’t succeed on smaller games alone, and major studios won’t devote development time and resources to a fraction of the market until the market is large enough.

Sony could make a PS Plus Collection equivalent for PS VR 2 as long as it’s compatible with the original PS VR games (which would be a huge mistake if it wasn’t). Another simple way to make the initial purchase more appealing would be to do so. It’s easier to justify that large investment if you know you’ll get all of the best older PS VR games included.

Make it work on PC

VR look inside cells.
University of Cambridge

Although the PS5 is currently the most popular console, Sony has finally accepted the idea of porting its first-party games to the PC. PCs aren’t competitors; in fact, in the case of virtual reality, they could be its greatest ally. You expand your market right away by selling units to people who can’t find or don’t want a PS5. Many gamers have invested in PC gaming and will not bother with a low-powered console, but they would be interested in a lower-cost VR headset. This also helps with the support issue: there are a lot more VR games, or VR-compatible games, available on PC, which could help the PSVR 2’s library expand as soon as it launches.

And, if we still live in a world where PS5s is a struggle to get your hands on, then people could at least pick up the PS VR 2 beforehand and get those aforementioned first-party games to play via PC.

Go beyond games

A player swinging controllers in Supernatural Fitness VR.

This is looking further into the future, but I believe it is necessary when discussing virtual reality. Games should only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of technology. Attract people in with games that are simple to put on and begin playing, but then give them more. Sure, games are more popular than ever, but virtual reality is destined to be used for so much more. Sony must pave the way for this, or at the very least be willing to allow it. Other applications of virtual reality include virtual hangout spaces, theatre and concert viewing, exercise, and creative spaces.

Of course, Sony can’t do everything, but it can get things started in a big way. Why not hold virtual reality premieres of new Sony Pictures films? It recently acquired the anime streaming service Crunchyroll, so it may be able to make it VR-friendly. If built correctly, a social space similar to PlayStation Home from the PS3 days would be a perfect fit for PS VR 2, and simply bringing Dreams as a creative tool to PS5 would inspire a slew of artists and designers to put on a headset and create something.

Everything else is up to Sony. All they have to do now is let people do whatever they want with their headsets. People will find a way to do more with it if it works with PCs, after all. Allow them to do whatever they want as long as they aren’t stealing games, data, or anything else malicious. I understand that Sony isn’t fond of people modifying its work, but the best way for VR to appeal to the masses is to allow people to do as much as they want with it.

Specs aren’t that important

People playing PSVR on a couch.
Sony

It’s important to remember that, in the past, the most powerful hardware hasn’t always meant the most success. There are plenty of examples in the console space, but we can see it even in virtual reality. As of 2020, the original PlayStation VR had sold 5 million units. Despite being far weaker and tied to the aging PS4, this was widely reported to be the bestselling headset at the time, despite being far weaker and tied to the aging PS4.

At the same time, 5 million is a small percentage of the 100 million or so PS4s that had been sold by that point. People are most interested in an easy-to-use VR headset with no expensive or complicated PC to worry about, as well as a lower price point. That’s exactly how the console market works. They’re not as powerful as a PC, but they get the job done.

According to what we know so far about this new headset, it will be a good device in terms of specs, will require only one cable, and will include controllers that use the DualSense’s haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. With PS VR, Sony demonstrated that it can get a foot in the door, but it stopped short of actually pushing it open. It might be a while before VR as a whole realises its full potential if it doesn’t follow through with this next attempt.

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